There's nothing like being surrounded by a crowd chanting "Death to America" on the day of the most historic U.S. presidential Inauguration in memory to make an American foreign correspondent feel homesick. The first day of my trip to Iran coincided with a new President's taking office in Washington and a demonstration at Tehran University in support of the Gaza Palestinians. Several thousand students gathered on campus and acted out a page from the standard Islamic Resistance playbook. "The blood in our veins is a gift to our leader," they chanted. "Israel will be destroyed, and Gaza is victorious." Later, part of the crowd reconvened at the former U.S. embassy--now known as the Den of Spies--and burned posters of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Doubtless much of the sound and fury was routine. As soon as it became known that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had canceled a scheduled appearance, about half the crowd left. And in fact, many Iranians favor better relations with the U.S.--I met countless Iranians eager for more than just talk. "The walls should be torn down--from both sides!" a rank-and-file government supporter blurted out to me after the rally.
That message may be getting through. With the election of Obama, détente between Iran and the U.S. may be closer than at any time since the two countries severed diplomatic ties with the birth of the Islamic republic in 1979. Obama's foreign policy team views Tehran as both the source of and a possible solution to most of America's problems in the Middle East--from militants in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza to what Washington believes is Tehran's secret nuclear-weapons program. At his first presidential press conference, Obama said that over many years, Iran's actions had been "unhelpful when it comes to promoting peace and prosperity." His national security team, however, was "looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can directly engage" with Iran.
But the rhetoric of demonstrations in Tehran is worth listening to. Seven years after Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech, power is consolidated in the hands of hard-line anti-American conservatives, led by Ahmadinejad and supported by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. Together they have used the Bush Administration's opposition as an opportunity to crack down on reformists. Ahmadinejad initially greeted Obama's victory with a rare congratulatory letter, though his ardor then seemed to cool as he called on the U.S. to "halt your support to the uncultivated and rootless, forged, phony, killers-of-women-and-children Zionists, and allow the Palestinian nation to determine its own destiny." But after Obama's press conference, Ahmadinejad said Iran was ready for "talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere."
The future of American-Iranian relations isn't up to Ahmadinejad alone, of course. Power in Iran is exercised by the elected presidency and parliament but overseen by less transparent clerical authorities headed by Khamenei. And with oil prices tumbling and the economy in poor shape, Ahmadinejad may face stiff competition in presidential elections this year. Yet even if more moderate politicians like former President Mohammed Khatami come to power, anti-Americanism is so much a part of public life in Iran that the question remains: Is détente with the U.S. compatible with the legacy of the Islamic revolution?